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Pakistan Supreme Court Overturns Death Sentence of Christian Mother Asia Bibi, Convicted of Blasphemy

Earlier this month I reported that Christian mother Asia Bibi was receiving her final death sentence appeal before a Pakistan Supreme Court panel on her conviction in 2010 of blasphemy.

After several weeks of delays and threats by Islamists groups against the panel judges, the Supreme Court overturned her death sentence today and ordered her immediate release.

Bibi has been in prison since 2009, when a local cleric filed a complaint against her after a dispute between her and several Muslim women over her drinking from the same water cup.

In its 56-page decision, the court found that the prosecution failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Pakistan media reports indicate that Islamist groups are launching protests and blocking roads throughout the country in response to the court's ruling. One prominent cleric has called for the army to rise up against the government, and one Islamist political party is calling for the ouster of the prime minister.

The BBC reports:

Chief Justice Saqib Nisarm, who read out the ruling, said Asia Bibi could walk free from jail in Sheikupura, near Lahore, immediately if not wanted in connection with any other case.

She was not in court to hear the ruling, but reacted to the verdict from prison with apparent disbelief.

"I can't believe what I am hearing, will I go out now? Will they let me out, really?" AFP news agency quoted her as saying by phone [...]

The judges said the prosecution had "categorically failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt".

The case was based on flimsy evidence, they said, and proper procedures had not been followed. The alleged confession was delivered in front of a crowd "threatening to kill her".

The ruling heavily referenced the Koran and Islamic history. It ended with a quote from the Hadith, the collected sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, which calls for non-Muslims to be treated kindly.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa directly challenged the veracity of the blasphemy charges:

At least two government officials have been assassinated after speaking out in her case.

In January 2011, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was murdered by his own bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, for calling for changes to blasphemy laws in response to Asia Bibi's case.

In March 2011, Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian member of Pakistan's cabinet, was shot and killed. His assassination was claimed by the Tehrik-i-Taliban, who said that they targeted Bhatti because of his opposition to the blasphemy law and threatened to kill anyone else who raised such challenges:

After the October 8 panel hearing, thousands of supporters of the Islamist political party Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) rallied in Lahore and other cities demanding Bibi's execution.

The TLP, which won two million votes in the elections last July and makes enforcing blasphemy laws one of their chief political issues, warned of "terrible consequences" the day after her appeal was heard.

They then threatened any judges who would be involved in acquitting Asia Bibi.

Even before today's decision, their supporters were rallying, calling for Bibi's execution:

One Islamic cleric closely associated with the TLP, Pir Afzal Qadri of the Aalmi Tanzeem Ahle Sunnat, issued a fatwa that any judge acquitting Asia Bibi should be punished by death.

Today, Qadri called on the army to rise up against their leadership:

Reuters is reporting that the TLP has called for the ouster of newly elected Prime Minister Imran Khan in response to the verdict.

The TLP has apparently launched simultaneous protests blocking roads in Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Faizabad and Karachi:

The TLP has launched sit-ins in Lahore and Karachi:

Given the hostility and threats in response to today's verdict, it is likely that Bibi and her family will need to seek asylum in another country.

Prime Minister Imran Khan also campaigned for enforcing blasphemy verdicts, so it remains to be seen how his government will respond to the escalating protests against today's ruling.

And the Supreme Court's decision doesn't end the targeted use of Pakistan's blasphemy laws against religious minorities.

In fact, just last week a learning disabled Christian man, Yaqoob Bashir Masih, was sentenced to life in prison for blasphemy after already being held for three years.

As Reuters observed last year, many of these cases never come to court because the accused are targeted for mob justice and lynchings. They reported that 66 people have been murdered over blasphemy accusations since 1990.

But for now, Asia Bibi's nine-year legal ordeal appears to be over, though new problems, namely new threats against her life, now present themselves.